Covington Farm & Fuel, LLC
By: Terri McClung
This is the sixth in the series of interviews conducted by the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation about small business entrepreneurship in our area.
The Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation offers entrepreneurial services,
one-on-one business planning assistance, training, mentoring and operational assistance to existing local small businesses and startups.
I recently sat down with J. W. Tingler and his son John of Covington Farm and Fuel located at 121 N. Alleghany Avenue in Covington to get their views on the life of being a small business entrepreneur in the Alleghany Highlands. These gentlemen can be reached by calling 540.962.1983.
Mr. Tingler is a native of the Covington area; he attended the local elementary schools and graduated from Covington High School in 1971. He found employment with a major telecommunication company and worked there for 33 years and ended up being a district manager for 27 states before retiring.
So what made you take that leap into being an entrepreneur after retiring?
J.W. Tingler: Actually after retiring I had a hay business from a farmed we owned in the county and we leased other local properties for hay production. At the time my son, John was in high school and I was looking at job opportunities here locally and things were pretty scarce.
I wanted to put something on the table for my son as an option that if he wanted this business it could be his and if he wanted to pursue something else we would support that as well. I just wanted an option out there to where he could do something locally if that is what he chose to do.
John took Business Management at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College so that was going to be a good fit for him to be able to come in here and run this business.
Since taking the business over we have increased business sales tremendously. We have a lot of fuel sales so that number fluctuates drastically but proportionately to the cost of fuel because we sell so much of it. If the fuel doubles then our revenue doubles.
What made you choose this business?
J.W. Tingler: I was actually friends with Mr. Hubbard, who previously owned this business and I served on a couple small committees for him. He was reaching the age where he wanted to retire and of course I was looking for something I thought might be a good option for my son’s future.
With you being open 24/7 what do you look for in an employee?
What I am looking for is people that are trustworthy, honest, dependable and those that need and appreciate the job.
They need to cooperate and get along with others. This is very important to me. I want everybody to look forward to coming to work and to be on time.
And of course, they need to be trainable; we have to be able to train them to do different things and sometimes we might need to untrain them on certain things and retrain them to do things the way we want them done.
How important have good employees been to your success?
It’s the key! We do retail here, we also do service, we do the automotives and small engine repair so that is your product.
Your people are your product. What you are selling is their ability to work on/repair things that people don’t have the expertise to fix.
So it is critical and will determine whether you are successful or not. If you do not have good solid trained people with the skills to do the work you won’t be successful.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
J.W. Tingler: Determination and commitment.
John: Flexibility – the ability to evolve. The ability to evolve I would say is number one.
If you can’t evolve with your surroundings with the way the market changes and it certainly does. It is nothing now like it was 10 years ago and certainly not like 10 years before that. It is a speeding up kind of thing.
The internet is involved now very much so, it is more than involved; it is probably more than 90% of commerce on the retail level. We have to do some evolving ourselves, so the ability to be flexible and change with the times is huge.
What has been your most satisfying moment since you have had this business?
J. W. Tingler: The ability to grow and improve our business. We have done a lot on both of those things. We offer more on the product line than ever before.
We have expanded in a lot of new areas, we have made our physical appearance much more attractive, the different things we have done with the store, the concrete we have put in, and putting in more facilities to accommodate our growth. Those are some pretty satisfying accomplishments I think.
John: It has been satisfying to me to see our impact on the lives of others in a good way, whether it be employees, the community or customers. I think that is satisfying in itself to know we are a force in this community and we can leave a solid legacy behind is a good thing; it is not about money it is about what you can do to improve the quality of their lives and ours.
J. W. Tingler: And with this growth and expansion and so forth, anytime we add a new dimension to our business we try to find something that is a void in the community; we are very community minded.
We do not want to take on another product line like Carhart clothing when there is someone right down the street that is doing that to make a living. They are trying to make a living doing it; we are not interested in slicing the pie in smaller pieces to where nobody survives. We are interested in filling the voids of our community needs.
The last dimension we added was in our small engine repair shop which was light fabrication. We have a place where they can get a bracket made or the handle on the lawn mower welded; the little stuff.
We try to find things that don’t impact other businesses in a negative way. We like to formulate alliances with our competitors; we view them more as business associates and not competitors. And I think the other business owners reciprocate that as well for the things we do.
Tell me about your services and the products you offer here?
J. W. Tingler: We like to pride ourselves as the go to place for all of the logging industry hand held tools, accessories and consumables. We do a lot of lawn and garden work, sell zero turn lawn mowers and we service everything we sell. It adds more value to what we do because we service our products right here on location.
How do you advertise?
John: We advertise through newspaper and radio. Now we have taken a turn towards social media. I started out with Facebook and now I am learning more about Instagram.
I did a Black Friday all week sale last year and that was my first big push for Facebook. We started ramping up all our daily posts and paid for some boost on our posts but I want to do better with it than what we did.
What I have realized is no one is just going to voluntarily watch a commercial which is essentially what you are asking them to do when you get them on a company Facebook page.
So I created a related group called the Two Virginias Timber Harvesters for our local loggers and those from West Virginia.
It is a general group on Facebook that doesn’t say “Farm and Fuel” on it; it is separate page and stands alone.
I now have people from all over the world that post on the page. A lot of them are local but there are people from California, Japan, etc.
Big Al contributes to it as well with weather reports that may affect the loggers.
Wendy Farrand, a great activist from Maine and an awesome contributor to the page as well has pushed us in a bigger way. She referred me to the executive vice president of the American Logger’s Council to help get some resources out here if the resources weren’t already here.
I would really like to get her out here at some point since we have such a big community for it. She travels to the states of Oregon and Washington so I think she would come here from Maine. She pushes a “loggers are heroes” campaign with t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.
When I advertise something through the company page, I share it to the Timber Harvester’s page. I am also running a local campaign through Two Virginia’s Media.
The main thing is consistency, you have to keep posting so people don’t forget about you.
I try posting conversation starters on the Timber Harvester’s page to keep the post moving. I can do any kind of news for them and I can pull from different places around the world, competitions throughout the world, etc., and then I can slide my advertisement in between, and they get better reception.
If I put an ad there it tags in to my page, the Farm and Fuel page, and Al’s advertisement page. You hit the whole loop and it gets a lot more exposure.
J. W. Tingler: Plus it allows our customers to be interactive with these Facebook pages, and they post things worldwide. That is big because it is being done through us and it gives our local loggers here a voice in this industry and that is pretty powerful.
So as busy as you two are what do you do to recharge yourself when you are feeling drained?
J. W. Tingler: I work 7 days a week, John works 6 and I just look forward to going home in the evenings, watching some news, having a bite to eat and then I head off to bed. I go to bed early and I get up early and that is how I get my relaxation. Sometimes it is tough as nails around here and sometimes it is easy going. I enjoy my customers, I like to cut up with everybody that comes in here, I am a jokester, always have been and that is how I maneuver.
John: Just relaxing, I read a lot to soak up more and keep moving forward. There is always information to further my future for strategy.
If you had one piece of advice to someone starting out, what would it be?
J. W. Tingler: It is a lot of hard work and there are no shortcuts. It is easy to find excuses for not doing something you need to do.
John: Love what you do. You better make sure you love what you do because if you don’t you are going to quit before you get there because that is how hard being an entrepreneur is. An excuse is just a story we tell ourselves why we don’t do something. It is all about results. There is no success, there is no failure, it is all about results.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
J. W. Tingler: Hopefully retired and John in the hot seat. I hope to be retired but available to assist him if he needs me any way I can with this business. I would like to be a resource available on command. Not that he needs my help because he is quite capable. He might need another opinion or perspective. I use my people when I need perspective on something, I have my own, but the decision doesn’t stem from just my opinion. My decisions involve my people.
I want more time with my wife, being able to do things without the stress of the business and enjoy what time I have left of my life.
John: On top of the world.
In one word characterize your life as an entrepreneur?
J. W. Tingler: Successful!